Looking Back, Looking Forward
ECW welcomes guest author Mike Busovicki
All warriors want to know their efforts were not in vain and the deprivations they endured were worth the outcome. As the Civil War metamorphosed into a great insatiable beast, devouring ever more resources, lives, treasure, and innocence, those involved in that conflict inevitably asked, “What is this all for?” Faced with endless rows of graves and ever-growing casualty lists, what answer could possibly suffice? Entire towns might be in mourning when their local militia marched off as part of a volunteer regiment and suffered catastrophic losses in a horrific battle. The country was engulfed in a vast sea of heartbreak. What were the limits we were able to sacrifice?
President Lincoln unquestionably felt the same cold comfort in his own answers to that question as well, for he dedicated his entire address at Gettysburg to framing that question another way – What principles do we hold as imperative in America? Is this fight anything less than a renewal of the foundation of this nation? Must we resort to arms every time we diverge from those principles? How do we prepare for additional hardship as the contest of wills grinds on interminably? Though he elucidated the answers to those questions so thoroughly and succinctly, even Lincoln felt doubts that mere words could cover the scope and the scale of the matter. In the text of one of the most indispensable speeches in history, the great orator confesses that “the world will little note, nor long remember” their attempts to answer what the great struggle signified and what cost they were willing to pay for it.
We are going to struggle to find meaning in the twenty years we spent in Afghanistan. As a Post – 9/11 Era Veteran, people often ask me how I feel about the unfolding events or for some insight on putting the upheaval into context. My first thoughts when the news broke that we were leaving Afghanistan for good were the same words I’d expressed to a fellow Veteran the night Usama Bin Laden was killed more than ten years earlier: “I hope it was all worth it.” I said the same thing later that same year when major combat operations in Iraq were declared over (though armed violence has yet to stop in that country). “What a waste” was the second thought, considering how much had been lost in the process.
Many Veterans’ reaction to the scenes of terror and agony from overseas has alternately been anger, hopelessness, and a renewed sense of loss. I’ve read that Vietnam Veterans had lots of negative emotions from their war triggered by watching the fall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on TV, and though I didn’t experience Vietnam personally, I can definitely see what they mean. Speaking recently with comrades, I’ve found it doesn’t matter that almost two decades have passed since some of us were in Southwest Asia fighting a rather undefined “War on Terror”. Some specific memories may have blurred, but that doesn’t mean our feelings of frustration, rage, and exhaustion associated with war aren’t imprinted any less deeply.
I was an Infantryman who spent a total of 24 months in ground combat operations in Iraq. I probably left that war with more questions than answers. And I still do not regret choosing the profession of arms and defending the greatest nation on Earth. But after that experience, there has never been doubt in my mind that war – especially when experienced up close and personally – is only about destruction, and never about building anything. If you want to actually build something, pick a different tool. I have no question that Civil War Veterans felt the same way. For one, the country they destroyed was their own. The refugees and impoverished displaced by the war were their neighbors and extended family. The former enemy became their countrymen again (if reluctantly). One can’t help but be moved when faced with such ruin.
The Civil War, for those who actually fought in it, did not last from 1861 until 1865. It lasted for the rest of their lives. Those who had limbs blown off labored to not be defeated by that war every day. Those mentally scarred by the nightmares and trauma of combat camped with it every night. Civil War Veterans tirelessly lobbied for enhanced compensation for the maimed and fostered the memory of those who had answered the last roll call in monuments, parades, and anniversary services. They wouldn’t have spent decades doing so without having felt there was an account somewhere, still unbalanced, between what was paid and what was gained. Such is the way of survivor’s guilt.
Participation in these tributes was a manifestation of their unceasing quest to find significance in the battle they and their comrades had borne. There had to be something more valuable than possession of a hill overlooking an unknown town, or the junction of some great thoroughfares, or maybe a few yards of farmland that had been transformed into a slaughterhouse. They wanted people to remember the sacrifices and the lives of the fallen. At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. population was roughly 31 million people. No less than 3.4 million of them (at least 11% of the population overall) served in the ranks by the end of the conflict, though the percentage of southerners serving was far higher.[i] Thousands more served as nurses and as part of relief organizations to attend the sick and the maimed. The proportion of American society who were personally involved is unmatched. Contrast these figures with the one-half of one percent of the U.S. population is currently serving on active duty, and many of those have served multiple tours of duty.[ii] Meanwhile, under ten percent of the Americans today have ever worn the uniform in any capacity; far fewer engaged in actual combat.[iii]
And yet Civil War Veterans still demonstrated the fear that the price of freedom was being lost on Americans. Why else would their fraternal organizations and auxiliaries appoint officers dedicated to historical and patriotic education? They still needed to find meaning in the sacrifices made and to educate Americans about the costs of choosing the gun rather than choosing diplomacy. Their lifelong quest confirms that there is no quick nor easy answer to “What was it all for?” Still, this may be some means of consolation for those of us who have not found quick reconciliation for shortcomings in our own time. The qualities of resilience, discipline, and the ability to improvise that served us well in uniform will serve us well again.
Civil War Veterans undoubtedly grappled with a sense of loss – not only for fallen comrades but for the facets of their own lives that were given up; for the other paths they may have taken, or the for family they could have raised. “Oh, what might have been” crossed the minds of many. To mitigate feelings of doubt and unfulfillment, many threw themselves into fraternal organizations. There was no way to bring back those who had passed away. But Veterans organizations largely embraced community enrichment; if not always literally, at least metaphorically the country could be rebuilt. And though it was tragic that many were lost, it did not mean there could never be happiness and prosperity again. And the passion felt in loss could be reinvented in a new sense of purpose.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the largest of these Veteran organizations. The GAR and their auxiliaries were centered around the principles of Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty. Fraternity might be the memory of comrades who needed a drink from your canteen and some encouragement on a long forced march; now that comrade might need someone to lean on figuratively when finding it hard to carry on after the war. Charity was provided by those who were able to earn an honest living and could share with those who were less fortunate, including the establishment of homes for invalided Veterans. The sense that the nation owes a debt to its Veterans is largely a credit to this time period, a legacy they would be proud of. Their loyalty tied everything else together – continuously reaffirming their allegiance to a united country, rather than any other ideology, party, or person. That legacy continues today, as does the enduring message that comrades and their sacrifices will not be forgotten.
By holding these values sacred, these Veterans transcended the objectives of the conflict itself and constructed a new American society. This was the result of hard lessons, tempering rash action, and providing for those in need. In time, the decisions that led to Civil War would become unthinkable. That generation showed us how to heal the greatest rift this country has ever known, and how to be patient when success wasn’t immediate or suffered a setback. Then, as now, most Veterans were not consumed by the flames of war but strengthened – like hardened steel. It is important to remember it will take a long time to come to terms with the Post – 9/11 Era and its consequences. Not all of the lessons from this time have yet come to light. We still have the means to rescue those comrades who need us. We still have internal rifts that are not greater than the importance of a continued United States. Our Civil War counterparts definitely have another lesson for us: how to lay differences aside, coexist, and heal after conflict.
The author has worked as a professional Veteran’s representative since his honorable discharge from the military in 2008 for the PA Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Federal Veterans Benefits Administration. He holds a master’s degree in Human Security from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public an International Affairs. Part of his work included an internship with the Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Security Operations Institute as a contributor to stability operations recommendations and civilian casualty mitigation projects. He is also a proud new volunteer docent at the GAR Espy Post in Carnegie, PA.
[i] “The Civil War Facts.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/facts.htm
[ii] Schaeffer, Katherine. “The Changing Face of America’s Veteran Population.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, April 5, 2021. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/05/the-changing-face-of-americas-veteran-population/
[iii] “Demographics of the U.S. Military.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2020. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/demographics-us-military
[iv] “The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, July 4, 2019. Accessed September 19, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/2019691097/
[v] Neu, Jonathan. “Pittsburgh: birthplace of the VFW”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Accessed September 19, 2021. https://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/2014/09/14/Pittsburgh-birthplace-of-the-VFW-Veterans-of-Foreign-Wars/stories/201409110302
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Veterans of Foreign Wars.” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 1, 2020. Accessed September 19, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Veterans-of-Foreign-Wars
12 Responses to Looking Back, Looking Forward
Interesting article. It seems healing is not in the modern American vocabulary.
Thank you; I agree that it is not. The subtext there is that we need to de-stigmatize seeking help (especially mental health). Regarding mental health, I always recommend “Mental Health First Aid” from the National Council for Mental Well Being:
In regards to healing as a society and closing the rifts between different groups, I think the civil war and reconstruction period, for all its faults, was the largest paradigm shift in how Americans viewed those of another race, gender, or creed. War has a funny way of throwing us together and demonstrating that the “other” isn’t so different from “us” after all.
But the other piece of human nature is resistance to change. Those who seek regression to the prior status quo want it because for one person’s “progress” to happen, another has to allow for another seat at their table of power. We still see that today. If the United States could change as much as it did after the civil war, we can certainly simmer down the present rancor and sense of “losing our country” and learn to coexist. We’ve always been a nation blessed with plenty. We’re less apt to be ones to share.
Well, we did try something like 10 years of nation-building after the war, and I don’t think the results were much different.
Absolutely. And if we could simply “kill” our way to victory, we’d have left at least 15 years earlier.
Broadly and briefly speaking, military intervention generally has 3 scenarios where it has utility: peace making, peace keeping, or peace enforcement.
Peace making is when active conflict exists and only a military force will stop an ongoing “shooting war”. This may be in reply to an attack on one’s homeland or to stop another armed group from continuing to commit atrocities, human rights violations, and other violence. This period should be as decisive and as short as possible.
Peace keeping is a lower-level of of military presence where armed patrols or presence may be necessary to keep conflict from re-igniting, protect vulnerable groups, and begin infrastructure restoration. Mediation and diplomacy that failed prior to the active conflict period must be established as soon as possible to avoid regression.
Peace enforcement is more of a transition to law enforcement and must be a departure from military answers. Ironically, the longer a military presence exists in this scenario, the greater the chance is that conflict will re-ignite. This is because if social or governmental issues do not stabilize, the perception of military “occupiers” inevitably turns negative, the government (allied with the occupiers) is seen as a dictatorship, and even former allies will revolt.
This last piece must be left to the locals, especially in cases of civil war. This is based on the indivisibility of territory – “only one of us can exist here at a time.” If that is dictated by outsiders, at best, those in opposition to the occupation are justified as freedom fighters and the allies of the occupation are seen as traitors. Can we think of a scenario where civil war would be more likely? Can there be any clearer a prediction of where the next atrocities will occur (given humanity’s penchant for revenge)?
Part of the reason that Afghanistan failed was that military interventions sometimes do not allow for a “natural state” of post conflict resolution; i.e. you may be attempting to hold an artificial peace in place by force (there, a corrupt government that had no backing of the local nationals could exist without the threat of force and repercussion). Hanging on to avoid the inevitable shaking out of family grievances prolonged the war and made the likelihood of coalition forces killing more innocents inevitable. The use of controlled burns to avoid an all-out raging forest fire is an apt metaphor for this philosophy. The locals will put the smoldering parts out themselves so to speak, and can rightly claim ownership of their victory. Those who feel legitimate ownership of their home and culture are also less likely to let it fall apart again.
It is imperative in peacekeeping operations to identify what post-conflict weaknesses and vulnerabilities exist. If they don’t hold up in discussions and diplomatic talks, they will certainly fall under the barrel of a gun. If you cannot reinforce them within the local societal construct, you’re wasting your time trying to demand that it work through military force. Our way of laws and norms are not everyone’s.
The means of being successful at this point requires that law enforcement and legal rights dictate who will on the “right” side of legitimate force from that point on. What does society agree is an unlawful use of violence? What kind of penalty is just? What transparency is there? Who enforces violations of these laws and norms? Easier said than done of course, but those who violate these rules can be reasonably labeled as outlaws or pirates who are a threat to the whole society, and that to bring them to justice benefits everyone involved. Nobody wants a gunfight in their backyard where their children are playing. They will all come together to oust an “outlaw” and get back to normal life, no matter who the parties are.
The takeaway here is that though force is sometimes necessary, its end game is moving the current situation to the next lower-level of violence and transitioning to stability and peace. It is not useful otherwise. Even if this means letting the locals handle their own affairs. We would want the same for ourselves.
Thank you for reminding us all how the Civil War never went away. Didn’t Faulkner say, “The past is never past.”? Something like that.
Right?! I think it was “The past is never dead. It is not even past” (though I did have to look it up to verify, lol). History always has a lesson for us, if nothing more than to show what *not* to do. The more I realize human nature rarely changes, the more I understand that we should examine history even more to avoid repeating those missteps. Another quote attributed to Faulkner is “You must always know the past, for there is no real *was*, there is only *is*.” (emphasis added). I couldn’t agree more.
Nice piece, Mike. Thanks for posting. Like you, I am a veteran of the Forever wars. I would disagree, sort of with one part. My background is Infantry, but I deployed as a Civil Affairs officer. CA folks deal directly with the local population. I can point to several incidents where the US officers and NCO’s did indeed “build” something. We did not do it well. State department folks would have done much better, I am sure. But, anecdotally, we did indeed teach them about democracy. It was nice to watch. It was nothing 20 years of Infantry training prepared me for.
Like you, my time in my war has colored how I view those Confederate and Union veterans a great deal. I appreciate much more how the war was always with them. I knew some WW II veterans when I was a young officer. Those guys knew *everything* about their war. They read every book. They watched every movie. I find myself doing much the same thing. We yearn for deeper and deeper understanding of our war. On some gut level, we hunger to understand why so-and-so had to die. Why we had to endure what we endure. During the war itself, you are so busy, so consumed with the next mission. You just hang on by your fingernails.
As a descendant of numerous Confederate veterans, I cannot help but compare my relatively comfortable war to their war. They endured 100 times what we had to endure. Yet, they truly “continued the mission” – They did “Charley Mike” all the way. The greater the hardship, the greater the hunger to understand.
Thank you for your service, Tom! And I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
To address your point on nation “building”, I agree that on a more micro level, we did ‘build” individual things that were honestly appreciated (I remember our engineers fixing sewer and water lines in Mosul during the summer of 2003 that had been broken for seven years). And on a macro level I believe you are spot on with the observation that the State Department would more appropriately address the concerns of local villagers than the umpteenth Infantry Regiment could ever hope for. I talk a little bit about that in my second reply to Scott S. above, regarding “peace enforcement” operations and moving on from them.
Nonetheless, I think the past 20 years confirms we shouldn’t invade with the express mission of state building. Rebuilding is an intermediary process following active conflict; we definitely tried to make things our own, with underwhelming results. As a grad student we had the opportunity to talk with government and NGO personnel while researching case studies. A conversation with a USAID representative stands out in my mind particularly because of both (1) how critical he was of the military’s handling of humanitarian projects and (2) because of how forehead-smackingly obvious the “right answer” could have been if we were paying attention in many cases.
To paraphrase and summarize one example he’d made, a quick story: There were 2 villages of differing tribes who lived near each other and used a common water source (stream, river, whatever). They were somewhat rivalrous at times but generally ambivalent towards the other. They found it easier to simply coexist, and rarely “mixed and mingled”. During our occupation, the U.S. Army decides to swoop in to save the day (note: I didn’t say there was an existing problem here, did I?). So, the Army decides that there aren’t any insurgency/military issues to address, but the open water source is either too far away, too susceptible to pollution or harmful pathogens, or too dangerous, and the situation just needed some fixin’ up. If we drilled a well for them, it would free the villagers up to do other things than make long treks for potable water, improve health and safety, and we’d be the good guys. They don’t have drilling equipment; let’s do it for them! All of this makes sense to an American brain.
So the well is built. It is fantastic: efficient, closer to both tribes than the river, has a filtration system, the whole nine yards. It’s a gorgeous piece of work. And it couldn’t have been a bigger mistake.
First, it is drilled where it makes the most sense from an engineering point of view, rather than asking the tribes where they would prefer it (and if they want it at all). But it just so happens that the well is juuuuuust on this side of the traditional lands of tribe “A”. Tribe “B” wants to know why we didn’t drill it on their land. The commander has to inform the elders of Tribe B that they don’t have the time or the funds to drill another well, and that they’ll be redeployed from that area soon. Assets will be allocated to another area to accomplish another task before they leave. It can’t happen, and there is no guarantee that another unit will take over jurisdiction of the area (and if they do, will be able to do as requested).
Tribe B is resentful, but Tribe A wants to maintain good relations with the Americans. They aren’t so happy that Tribe B is now not cooperating with coalition forces. If the tribes don’t cooperate, the things Tribe A is enjoying might end. They get more territorial with the well drilled on their land (“Hey, WE’RE the cooperators… keep the gravy train on for us, and forget Tribe B”). Now, there is open hostility in the area between the tribes. Since Tribe A is aligned more closely with coalition forces, Tribe B isn’t opposed to allowing insurgents to operate in the area.
I don’t remember the specifics of what developed next (or the names of the tribes – I’d really like to revisit this), but we know that the general outcome of insurgents occupying new territory means more combat operations there and less soccer balls or candy for the local kids. I’m also guessing we can make some assumptions about incurring civilian casualties when the U.S. doesn’t know the difference between Tribe A, Tribe B, or insurgents. Plus, we can also make more assumptions about revenge between the tribes and the cultural implications of honor being violated in these traditional and conservative societies. And once Americans look less like the “good guys”, both tribes just might look the other way if a roadside bomb or two gets put in the road leading to the U.S. Forward Operating Base.
So, sure, we built some things. We did a lot of good. We pressed “democracy” on them, though elections alone does not a new democracy make. This was a good step, but quite a lot was expected in a relatively short amount of time from all sides. We assumed they thirsted for “Americanism”; jeans and Pepsi, sure. Voting, which had the unintended consequence of being made into a new means to threaten, intimidate, or execute opponents… less so. We often implemented plans because *we* felt they were necessary. Besides, how does the Battalion commander get an “excellent” bullet point on his annual Officer Evaluation Report if they can’t point to a project or two they accomplished while there? As the mission stretched on longer and longer, quantifiable progress was harder and harder to identify. So we simply manufactured “good news” that meant little in reality.
In the final analysis, we used the military to justify spending time, money (big government contracts), and lives for ambiguous “freedom” (we hear that word a lot domestically, to say nothing of the fact that the official Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are officially known as Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, respectively). So when my article asks, “what was it all for?”, it says that we didn’t get much of a return on that investment (no matter how many “good” wells we dug). We have to come to terms with what was lost in the process, and that struggle is just beginning. I look to the Blue and the Gray to see how they did it; it was not a smooth ride, but the Union they forged was stronger than before. I’d like to see us do that again.
Thank you for your service Mike.
A lot of good… for nothing.
Like Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam veterans (perhaps all veterans of all American wars)… do you think you will one day reconcile with your former adversaries?
Thank you Lyle! Happy to do my part.
As for reconciliation, that is an excellent question! This will likely be a case-by-case answer for most Veterans though. Yes, I definitely think it is possible, though it might be something that takes some time (I don’t know how soon we might be welcomed back as “guests”; I know trips back to Vietnam didn’t happen for decades). Meanwhile, at this point, I’m not personally harboring residual hatred towards the enemy anymore; it just wasn’t doing me any good. And I have been open to learning a lot more about other cultures and their way of life. So that is a good start. For a professional Soldier, it’s just business and not personal, right? At least that’s what we tell ourselves. And yes, that might be easier said than done, but I’d recommend it to other Veterans who are struggling with how they come to terms with the Post 9-11 “forever wars.”
The other reason I believe that reconciliation is possible is that we fought three primary enemies in Iraq. Who the enemy was might have something to do with the answer.
First, it was Saddam’s Republican Guard and Iraqi Army. Some were conscripts who had little interest in fighting, especially after the first few salvos. There were also professional soldiers that we faced, and they did the best they could. We actually met a lot of them after the invasion was over as we tried to figure out how to put a lid on that mess (given that anyone in the Ba’ath Party was removed from office, but you had to be a Ba’ath Party to have any real job: teacher, politician, merchant, whatever). We did invite them to come and get paid by the interim government (we provided security at the pay sites). Not all of them hated us (yet), and once they weren’t required to fight anymore… they didn’t. Having a common background as professional military men was a plus.
The second enemy we fought were locals who were paid to put bombs in the road, import weapons and equipment, or attack convoys. These folks might have been desperate for cash, and a few bucks to sabotage or ambush us and run off was worth it. They also might have been former Ba’ath Party members who were unemployed because of us, but not particularly well trained or equipped. There also could have been pressure on them socially to oppose the American occupation or they might have been forced by insurgents to attack us. Sometimes hard-line insurgents held the family hostage or kidnapped family members and wouldn’t release them until the father/brother/son put a bomb in the road to satisfy the ransom. They had no choice.
The locals as a whole didn’t necessarily hate us, and to be honest, a lot of good intel came from them. We didn’t necessarily hate the locals either. Like I said in an earlier reply to another comment, nobody wants a gunfight in their backyard. They told us where the bad guys were, and left us alone otherwise. The problem was the enemy blended in with them perfectly, which was an obvious problem.
The third group is the exiting one though. These were the hard-liners that might have bought a one-way ticket to Iraq simply to be martyred while killing as many Americans as possible or were one of the two aforementioned parties that had a score to settle with us (maybe a family member had been killed by the coalition and they believed in an eye for an eye). And this group definitely came to play. Normally with the first two groups, a firefight could last a few minutes, tops (or even just a few bursts of automatic fire), or an IED ambush would be a simple device and not a well planned attack. Hopefully you survived the initial hit, and they would blend back into the surroundings. Not with the last crew. They would use complex attacks and follow up on it; both sides would use maneuver tactics and might shoot up all the ammo on hand before breaking contact. Or, they’d just keep coming until they were eliminated. I’m thankful we had close air support and they didn’t.
I think reconciliation is possible with at least the first two groups because I’ve quite literally sat down and had chai (Arabic for hot tea with lots of sugar) with members of both. Some have told us that they fought us in either the 1991 war, the 2003 invasion, or both. However, they wanted the foreign fighters gone because it was turning their city into a shooting gallery. Therefore, we attempted to maximize the theory of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” for mutual benefit. Plus, a lot of Iraqis genuinely were happy that Saddam and his family were gone. There was even a Catholic Church in Mosul and we celebrated mass with the Christians there. I shudder to think what happened to them when ISIS arrived.
Even as these events were unfolding, I think a lot of Iraqis and Americans realized that we were both caught up in an event that was bigger than any of us as individuals. Most progress was made on an inter-personal level, and reconciliation could even be possible in time with those who took up arms against us. That third group though? You’d have to ask them.
Again, thank you for the question!
Postscript: I will say that the above reply is the product of several years of reflection and perspective. I doubt I’d have said the same thing 15 years ago.